Revealed: The attainment gap for looked-after children

Looked-after pupils in Scotland continue to lag behind – and where they are placed has an impact on how well they do

‘Positive destinations’ at record high

The size of the attainment gap between looked-after children and the general pupil population in Scotland, despite some improvements, has been revealed by new research.

The Education Outcomes for Looked After Children statistics, published today, reveal that just 39 per cent of looked-after children had one or more National 5 qualification – down from 44 per cent last year and compared with 86 per cent for all pupils.

The lower attainment of looked-after children is partially explained because they tend to leave school earlier – something that has been raised as a concern, given recent arguments from the Scottish government that the three-year senior phase should be viewed as a continuum. A total of 44 per cent of looked-after children left school at S4 or earlier, as compared with 11 per cent of all leavers.

The figures also show that 76 per cent of looked-after children are in positive destinations – work, training or study – nine months after leaving school, compared with 93 per cent for all pupils.


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The Scottish government is highlighting the 93 per cent positive destinations figure – also released today – as the highest on record since 2009-10, when the proportion of school leavers in positive destinations nine months after leaving school was 85 per cent.

Challenges for looked-after children

Employment and higher education have seen the largest increases in the proportion of pupils entering them after school. However, since 2016 Tes Scotland has been airing concerns about the “dead-end jobs” that can contribute towards the employment statistics.

The latest figures show that 28 per cent of last year’s school leavers were counted as being in employment nine months after leaving school but these jobs could include zero-hours contracts.

Education secretary John Swinney said that he was “particularly pleased” to see the proportion of looked-after children entering further and higher education at a record high

He said that was “real progress” and showed the action being taken to close the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland was working.

However, only 4 per cent of looked-after children were in higher education nine months after leaving school, as compared with 39 per cent of all school leavers.

The proportion of looked-after children in further education was 38 per cent, as compared with 22 per cent in 2009-10. The proportion of all leavers in further education was 23 per cent.  

The statistics also highlight the stark difference in the attainment of looked-after children depending on where they are placed. Pupils placed with foster parents are almost as likely to be in a positive destination as pupils more generally, but only 59 per cent of pupils looked after at home with their parents were in a positive destination nine months after leaving school.

Mr Swinney said: “While the figures published today are extremely encouraging, we know that there is more to do to ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential in life and succeed, regardless of their background.”

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